Prologue Five Million Yen

July 21, 1948. Sherman, Connecticut

The lanky broken man walked with short quick steps on the uneven path. His long-fingered right hand held a length of cheap grocery store clothesline. He wore jeans, a black-and-white checked wool shirt and dress slip-on shoes without socks. His thinning black hair framed his pallid complexion. The whites of his eyes had a faint blue patina. A heavy leather-and-steel orthopedic brace encircled his neck. If he was in pain, it was not apparent from his facial expression, which seemed to relax into a beatific smile with each step. His legs, which initially felt heavy, shed weight as he switched his gait to a drag-leg hop-skip. In his native Turkish-Armenian, he repeated a three-word phrase until it became an unintelligible rhythmic singsong. A large mixed-breed dog and a dachshund followed the man. Ahead was a small three-sided shack situated beside a large stone crusher, remnants of a former resident’s mining ambitions. In the shack were stacks of empty wooden wine crates. The man entered the shack, took one of the wine crates and situated it under a roof joist. Standing on the wine crate, he tied the clothesline to the joist and made a slipknot at the lower end. He stepped off the crate and pulled a piece of white chalk from his pocket. On another wine crate he wrote Good-by all my loved. He wanted to write more, but the chalk broke. He tossed the pieces of chalk out the open side of the shack onto the grass. His mind was not his own. He was ready to escape the physical pain, misery, humiliation, career failure, ridicule and recent cuckoldry he had suffered. His life had become a lie. Even his American name was a lie. He had devoted his life to art, but art had walked out on him. He removed the leather and metal brace from his neck, dropping it on the earthen floor. He could smell the rising summer heat from the quarry. He stood on the crate, put the loop of clothesline around his neck, and without hesitation kicked the wine crate from under his feet. The clothesline stretched until his toes were an inch from the earth. His weakened neck made a sharp click sound. His last exhale caused his jeans to drop to his pubis revealing the bandages around his abdomen from his recent colon surgery. The dachshund began barking. The dead man was the acknowledged father of Abstract Expressionism: the painter Arshile Gorky.

July 21, 1948. Union Square, New York City

Unknown to the thief, the click of the lock on Gorky’s Union Square studio door in New York City coincided with the crack of Gorky’s neck in Sherman, Connecticut. The object he sought was the painting on the studio’s large easel. That painting, The Unfaithful Wife, depicted a nude woman lying on her back on an unmade bed, legs akimbo. She beckoned to the man who stood at one side of the bed. Her figure was foreshortened making her head appear smaller as it receded toward the headboard at the top of the picture frame while exaggerating the size of her legs and hips. The perspective made the naked man’s erection appear larger than normal; his eyes were glistening in anticipation of sexual pleasure. Both figures were painted with wild stabbing brush and palette knife strokes. The setting was a room filled with a pale rose and yellow fog, like blood in urine. Bodily details were intensified by impasto, a technique Gorky rarely used. There was enough detail to reveal, to those who knew the subjects and the painter, that the woman was Gorky’s wife Agnes Magruder and her lover the Chilean painter Roberto Matta. The painting was small for Gorky, 20 inches wide by 26 inches high; but with the neck brace and broken collarbone from a recent auto accident, it was as large a painting as he could manage. It was signed “a Gorky.” On the back was the date 19 July 1948. The title, The Unfaithful Wife, was crudely printed in cadmium red oil paint on the back of the painting along the upper stretcher bar.

The painting had been slashed with a knife from the upper left corner to the bottom right separating the woman from the man. The knife had been thrown into the wooden floor a foot from the easel with such force that the point was buried an inch deep. The thief, Roberto Matta, removed the painting from the easel; the paint had not dried and was tacky. He carefully wrapped it in white butcher paper. He locked the door of the studio and left with the painting. Gorky’s body had yet to be discovered in Connecticut. Matta began thinking about lunch with Agnes.

December 29, 1975. 12th Arrondissement, Paris

The man, a tall handsome Russian-American artist with jet black hair, full lips and soft dark eyes, sat at a table in a cozy non-descript bar near Gare de Lyon. The room consisted of a six-stool bar with three tables along the opposite mirrored wall. Ice from the freezing rain covered the small table outside on the sidewalk. Two prostitutes sat at the bar smoking and drinking wine. The sleet blanketed holiday decorations and rendered the Monday evening rush hour streets and sidewalks treacherous. From his position behind the bar, the bartender, a short stocky man with a Stalin mustache and thick blond hair, watched the sleet and rain blur the reflected automobile lights in the bar window.

This was not the bar that the artist usually frequented. He preferred Bar Sanglier for its comfort, neighborly atmosphere and proximity to his atelier. He was meeting a prospective renter of his painting/living space on nearby rue Charenton. He eyed the two prostitutes. One was on the heavy side, but with a pleasant face. The other was consumptive, with an acne-scarred face, long stringy hair and oversized breasts. He wondered if they were beginning their night, or taking a break between their afternoon and evening work. The artist reached into his leather musette bag and took out a wire bound sketchbook, a dip pen and bottle of black ink. He made several sketches of the girls and then saw that the barman had moved so that there was a strong triangle of figures. Just as he had finished sketching the trio, the consumptive prostitute reached down to adjust the strap on one of her pumps. The multiple angles of her arms, legs, breasts, hips, head and hair were graphically compelling. Gringovitch made a quick gesture sketch of her adjusting her shoe strap. He then made a new drawing of the bar trio with the consumptive girl in the more interesting pose. When he was satisfied with the figures, he sketched the details and background.

The barman walked around the bar and approached the man.
—Another pastis, monsieur?
—Please, but with ice this time.
—Of course. You are an artist?
—A painter. My life is a line.
—May I see your sketch?

The man turned his sketchbook so the barman could see the drawing of the trio. The barman studied the drawing with a smile on his face.

—A pastis for this drawing?

The man took an Italian Stiletto switchblade from his pocket and carefully cut the drawing from his sketchbook. He signed the drawing. On the back, he lettered: Bar: Rainy Afternoon: Paris, 29/xii/1975

The barman returned with a generous pastis on ice and a small carafe of water. The liquor was turning white from the melting ice.

—What is your name? asked the artist.
—Nikoloz, said the barman.
—Nikoloz? Are you Russian?
—Georgian. My mother’s family was from Tbilisi, said Nikoloz in Russian.
—My mother and father are Russian, said the man replying in Russian. I was born in Leningrad. We defected to Chicago where I grew up. I divide my time between New York, Paris, and Rome.

The barman took the drawing and showed it to the two women. They turned and smiled at the man. The heavier one slid off her barstool and walked over to the artist.

—I like your drawing, she said, giving the man a seductive smile and displaying most of her chubby bosom. Will you draw me?
—If you sit, I will draw your portrait in one minute.
—One minute?

She sat, primped her hair, and pulled the yoke of her dress down to reveal maximum cleavage.

—Nikoloz, said the girl. Tell us when one minute is up.
—Don’t move, said the artist.  He drew swiftly and surely. He signed his name just as Nikoloz called the time.
—Let me see it, said the girl.

She turned to compare her face in the mirrored wall with the drawing.

—I like this. What is your name?
—Gringovitch. Anatoly Gringovitch. You may keep the drawing.
Merci. Merci bien, she said. She rose from her chair walked to Gringovitch, bent down and gave him a big kiss on the cheek pressing her plump bosom into his arm.
Bonne année, said Gringovitch, wiping her lipstick off his cheek.

A powerful-looking man, accompanied by a slender woman dressed in business attire, entered the bar. The man had an aurora of authority about him. He was over six feet tall and radiated great physical strength. His large head was hatless and he wore a full-length black leather coat. His grey-flecked black hair was cut in the style know as a Chicago boxcar. He scanned the room with narrow eyes. His physical bearing and alert eyes suggested he was either a cop or a felon. He was both relaxed and wary. The woman with him was dressed in a tan Burberry trench coat, silk scarf, dark red beret and tight-fitting wine-dark red leather mid-calf heeled boots. She wore her dark hair in a short stylish cut. The man looked to be in his early forties, the woman perhaps a few years older. Their coats were almost dry, indicating they must have arrived by taxi. Under his arm, the man carried a painting wrapped in brown paper. They walked directly to Gringovitch’s table. Gringovitch stood to greet them.

—Dan Sarras, said Gringovitch. You made it. And this must be the beautiful and elusive Celine Crissé.
—Yes, she said smiling and proffering a gloved hand.  I arrived from Rome this morning.
—Pleased to meet you, said Gringovitch, clasping her hand warmly with both of his hands.
—Celine, this is the nearly famous painter, Anatoly Gringovitch. Celine, meet your future landlord.
—Pleased to meet you, said Celine in French-accented English. Dan Sarras told me many wonderful things about your paintings.
—I’m sure he exaggerated, said Gringovitch, giving Celine a smile and a wink. After all, he is my art dealer.
—Madame Crissé is also an art dealer, said Sarras, helping Celine out of her coat. In fact, if she takes your studio, she may make an art deal with you. We spent the last hour in your studio. She thinks it is perfect for her needs.
—Excellent, said Gringovitch, wondering if Sarras had bedded Celine in his studio.
—It has marvelous light and is perfectly Spartan, she said. I hate clutter
—The neighborhood is working class, said Gringovitch, but it is safe and convenient. I have owned the flat since 1964, over ten years, and never had any trouble. But now, I have little use for it, Dan, my dealer, is in New York City and I live mostly in Rome. It is little more than an unused pied a terre.
—I would like to rent it for five years, said Celine, removing her leather gloves. I am willing to trade an Arshile Gorky painting for five years’ rent.
—A Gorky painting?
—The Chilean painter, Roberto Matta, was my lover in Rome for several years. When I became tired of his endless philandering, I took this painting as payment for years of emotional torture. He has never asked me to return the painting. It dates from the last days of Gorky’s life.
—What is the painting?
—It’s titled The Unfaithful Wife, said Sarras. Matta stole it from Gorky’s studio the day Gorky hanged himself. It’s not listed in any catalog of Gorky’s works because it was completed two days before the suicide and was only seen by Gorky, Matta and later a few visitors to Matta’s various studios. There is mention in one provisional catalog raisonné of Gorky’s works that there was a slashed painting in Gorky’s studio, but it isn’t clear if the cataloger meant Gorky’s studio in Sherman, Connecticut, which had burned down, or his Union Square studio in New York City. This painting was slashed. Matta had it repaired by the best conservators.
—It’s an authentic Gorky. Now you know the provenance Anatoly. May I call you Anatoly? Celine asked, brushing an errant hair from her eye.
—But of course, said Gringovitch. He marveled at the calculating sexuality of this woman.

Sarras caught Gringovitch’s expression and raised an eyebrow.

—May I buy either of you something to drink? said Gringovitch.
—I’ll take a brandy, said Celine.
—Their best scotch, said Sarras.

Gringovitch went to the bar and gave the barman their orders.

—Are you going to draw me? asked the consumptive prostitute, coughing cigarette smoke into the back of her hand.
—I’m so sorry, my dear, but I’m in a business meeting at the moment.
—You’re so mean, she said, giving Gringovitch a playful slap on his arm.

Gringovitch returned to the table. Sarras had unwrapped the painting. He handed it to Gringovitch.

Gringovitch examined the painting in what light there was in the bar. It looked authentic and he could see on the back where the canvas had been stitched together. The repair was invisible from the front. He wasn’t sure repairing the knife slash was the correct thing to do. Given the title, subject matter and the angst of the painter, leaving it slashed may have been the better choice. The signature and title looked like what he remembered of Gorky’s printing style.

—Dan, what’s your read on this? asked Gringovitch. Do you believe it’s authentic?
—As far as I can tell, said Sarras. Before I flew to Paris, I spent three days looking at all the Gorkys I could find in New York.
—Oh, it’s genuine. I’m sure it is worth at least $50,000; probably more if it were better documented and came with papers, said Celine.
—I would think a Gorky of this quality and provenance would be worth even more to the right collector, said Gringovitch. In spite of its sexuality, it is painted with a jealous vengeance. The brush strokes and palette knife work are brutal and full of rage. Not typical of Gorky, but then, he was losing his mind, as well as his health and his wife. The viewer is not a voyeur of an impending sex act, but rather an outraged cuckold imagining his unfaithful wife’s tryst. The fact that Gorky slashed the picture indicates how angry and out of control, he was. The damage is part of the content, essential to the ethos of the picture. Too bad Matta had it repaired.
—It’s hardly an “over-the-mantle” picture, but not inaccrochable, said Sarras. As you say, Anatoly, to the right collector it is an essential Gorky, perhaps the essential Gorky.
—Inaccrochable? asked Celine
—Unhangable, replied Sarras. I’m not sure it’s a real French word, but Hemingway mentions Gertrude Stein using the word to describe certain paintings not for general viewing.

Gringovitch handed the painting to Sarras and took a sip of his pastis, giving the glass an approving look.

—How much rent did you expect to receive for your atelier?
—5,000 francs a month. That’s about a thousand dollars a month, cheap by Paris standards for a 200 square meter flat even in this arrondissement.
—Well, I think the exchange of the Gorky for five years’ rent on the studio is a good deal, said Celine giving Anatoly a winning smile. You retain the Gorky and at the end of five years, you still have your atelier.
—Yes, but I must continue to pay the taxes and upkeep out of my pocket.
—Anatoly, it’s like buying a famous painting on an installment plan, said Sarras. Surely you’re not hurting for money.
—No, but Francesca and I are negotiating to buy my Rome atelier which includes a 220 square meter living area. The seller, a Mafioso, demands cash.
—As your American art dealer, I think you should accept the Gorky for five years’ rent. Even if you only sell a few of your paintings from your one-man show in April, you’ll have plenty of money for real estate investments.

The barman brought the drinks and another pastis for Gringovitch. Sarras rewrapped the painting.

Gringovitch wondered if Crissé and Sarras were working a scam on him. Sarras had a history of questionable deals and he didn’t know Crissé. She was a handsome woman in an androgynous way. Prominent cheekbones and large brown eyes accented her regular boyish features. She possessed a charming smile and was naturally flirtatious.

Sarras had been his dealer since he came to New York in the early sixties. Sarras had several Rolodexes filled with the names and numbers of serious and casual art collectors. Sarras didn’t pay Gringovitch a monthly stipend, but he could be counted on to sell enough paintings to net Gringovitch over a hundred grand a year. Sarras told Gringovitch that if his star kept rising he would be selling over a million dollars worth of his paintings a year in five years.

—Do we have a deal? asked Celine.

Gringovitch sipped his drink. He took his pen and made a finished drawing of the consumptive prostitute adjusting her shoe. When he looked up, Sarras and Crissé were looking at him in anticipation.

—Well, said Sarras.
—Sure. January 15, 1976, you can move in. My lawyer will draw up the papers.
—I think it’s a good deal for both of you, said Sarras.
—Here’s to good deals, said Gringovitch, raising his glass.

They clinked glasses and drank to the deal. Gringovitch looked up to see if the two prostitutes were still at the bar, but they were gone. On the way out, he gave the drawing to the barman and told him to give the drawing to the consumptive prostitute.

July 4, 1976, Canarsie, Brooklyn

Dan Sarras, dressed in a chauffeur’s livery, turned off Foster Avenue onto East 86th street in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He pressed a garage door opener and entered a service garage. He parked the Cadillac next to a 1969 Chevy Bel Air. He slid the keys under the front seat, removed his coat and hat and threw them in the back seat of the Chevy. The urban-abused Chevy looked older than its seven years. Sarras backed it out of the garage, closed the garage door with the door opener and headed down 86th street. He squinted his eyes fighting a screaming headache. Every time he had to meet with his parole officer, he got a headache. Fortunately, this was their last meeting. His parole was over. Fitting it happened on Independence Day. When he arrived at Avenue N, he parked the car. He entered an attached red brick house that served as his home and studio.

Dan Sarras’s meetings with his parole officer were fencing matches. He told his parole officer he was a car service driver, which was a charade that he was sure didn’t fool his parole officer. Sarras’s resume included currency forgery, espionage, double agent, art forger, dealer in stolen antiquities and art dealer. He was suspected of being the mastermind behind the murder of two British double agents. He had forged 100-dollar bills for the Soviet Union. He worked for the CIA and the KGB. He had even informed for MI6. He was apprehended when a Soviet mole ratted him out to Treasury Department agents. He was charged with forgery in the service of a foreign power, but the Justice Department dropped the charges when he exposed a Soviet double agent in the upper echelons of the State Department. The Treasury Department agreed if he would reveal how he identified his bills from legal tender. When he showed them his cleverly disguised initials, the Treasury Department immediately began microscopic examination of all circulating 100-dollar bills. It was estimated that in six months seven percent of all 100-dollar bills returning to the Treasury Department were minted from Sarras’s engraved plates. In homage to Sherlock Holmes, Sarras called it his 7% solution to poverty.

After changing clothes and pouring himself a generous Scotch, Sarras entered the basement of the house, moved a bookcase, opened a trap door in the floor, and descended to a well-lit artist’s studio. Three identical paintings on three identical easels were in the studio. The studio resembled an operating theater rather than a typical artist’s atelier. He donned a battery-powered headlamp and surgical gloves. A six-foot glass topped table served as a palette. In addition to paint, brushes, and palette knives, a variety of calipers, rulers and dividers covered the table.

Sarras sat quietly studying the three paintings: the original and two copies of The Unfaithful Wife. Finally, he took a twenty-power magnifying glass and examined the finials on the bedstead of the original. There was a confusion of brush strokes on the finials. He would make a leftward stroke on the near side finial at the head of the bed on one copy and a rightward brush stroke on the near side finial at the head of the bed on the other copy.  He carefully matched the colors and added the brush strokes. Unless one knew where to look and had seen the original, it would be impossible to identify the copies without comparing them to the original. Since no art historian, curator or Gorky expert had ever seen The Unfaithful Wife; the copies would easily pass as originals. At this point, only Sarras knew which paintings were copies and which copy was which.

When the two copies were dry, he would age them. Gringovitch had given him vacuum cleaner dust from his Rome studio. Sarras would carefully apply the Roman dust to the copies until they looked like the original, which had hung in Matta’s Rome studio for 25 years.

Author: drharris

Composer, Musician, Artist, Writer